Controversial poll reforms bills sent to joint session of parliament

Published September 30, 2021
PML-N’s firebrand parliamentary leader Khawaja Asif speaks during the National Assembly session on Wednesday. — Photo courtesy: NA Twitter
PML-N’s firebrand parliamentary leader Khawaja Asif speaks during the National Assembly session on Wednesday. — Photo courtesy: NA Twitter

ISLAMABAD: National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser on Wednesday referred seven bills, including two controversial electoral reforms bills and the one to provide right of appeal to Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, to the joint sitting of parliament after approval of the motions by the house amid the opposition’s boycott.

The seven bills had been passed by the National Assembly but could not sail through the opposition-dominated Senate within the stipulated 90-day period. The government, which enjoys a majority if the two houses combine together, now intends to get the bills passed from the joint sitting of parliament under Article 70 of the Constitution.

Before staging walkout from the house, the opposition members blasted the government for “bulldozing the crucial legislations”, terming the move to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs) and I-voting for overseas Pakistanis a plan to rig next general elections in the country. They warned of street agitation and “clashes” in case the government got the EVM bill passed from the joint sitting of parliament.

Opposition stages walkout from NA, warns of street agitation if bills are bulldozed

The opposition members in their speeches also castigated the speaker for not fulfilling his commitment regarding formation of a parliamentary committee on the issue.

Taking advantage of the opposition’s absence, the government, which had been unable to maintain quorum in the assembly for the past seven consecutive days, also laid five ordinances, including the Elections (Third Amendment) Ordinance, 2021, aimed at de-seating Ishaq Dar of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), before the house. The government intends to get Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin elected as senator from Punjab and this plan was announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan in the parliamentary party meeting held hours before the start of the assembly’s sitting.

Before announcing boycott of the proceedings, the opposition again pointed out lack of quorum, but after a headcount the speaker declared the house in order. The government had finally managed to ensure the quorum, for which the presence of 86 members of the 342-member house is required, after the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) made it mandatory for the treasury members to attend the parliamentary group’s meeting presided over by the prime minister.

“Any effort to bulldoze the so-called electoral reforms will create doubts and the people will not accept the results (of the next elections),” declared the PML-N’s firebrand parliamentary leader Khawaja Asif while opposing the motion moved by Law Minister Farogh Naseem for referring the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2021 to the joint sitting of the parliament.

Mr Asif said after seeing the results of the recently-held cantonment boards’ elections, the PTI feared that if next general elections were held in free and fair manner, the opposition would emerge as victorious.

“Therefore, foundation is being laid from today to rig next elections,” said Mr Asif while opposing the idea of using EVMs. He said a number of countries had already abandoned these machines which were “vulnerable” for hacking.

Quoting a written reply to a question by the finance minister, the PML-N leader said the government had just today informed the house that the Federal Board of Revenue systems were constantly subjected to cyber-attacks on a regular basis and on average, approximately 71,000 times a month. He said in the same reply the government had admitted that over the past couple of years, the tools and methods available to the hackers had become more powerful and sophisticated.

“You are doing it to take advantage (in the elections) of this kind of vulnerability,” Mr Asif said.

“If you make an attempt to brazenly get the bill passed from the joint sitting of the parliament, then you have started rigging in the upcoming elections ...... If you still go ahead with the proceedings, we will not participate in it. We will go to the public and tell them that their vote is being trampled,” Mr Asif declared before taking the seat.

Syed Naveed Qamar of the Pakistan Peoples Party criticised the government for not making any effort to build consensus on any issue in the past three years.

“We are making the elections controversial which are due after two years,” he said.

“Who will certify the software (to be installed in EVMs)?” he asked, stating that in this case, technology would increase disputes, instead of reducing them.

He said they were talking about I-voting in a country where they could not even maintain smooth working of internet.

Asad Mehmood of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) warned that the government was laying the foundation of “clashes and chaos” in the country by going ahead with its EVM plan. He asked the speaker to stop the government from moving this controversial bill.

The JUI-F lawmaker alleged that like other institutions, the government was now making the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) a controversial institution. He said conducting elections was the responsibility of the ECP and not the government.

“… one cannot consult thieves to find out ways for stopping thefts,” said Mr Mehmood while alleging that the incumbent government was a “product of rigged elections” and had come to power through backdoor.

The opposition members then staged a walkout leaving behind independent MNA Mohsin Dawar to point out lack of quorum, which was found complete.

Responding to the opposition’s criticism, Law Minister Farogh Naseem quoted Article 222 of the Constitution and said it was the parliament which was empowered to make decisions about conduct of elections.

“The ECP has no jurisdiction to raise objections (on the EVMs),” said the minister while asking the speaker to put the motion for vote for referring the bills to a joint sitting of the parliament.

ICJ bill

Later, the law minister also moved the motion asking the chair to refer the International Court of Justice (Review and Re-consideration) Bill, 2021 to the joint sitting of the parliament. The ICJ bill to provide right of appeal to Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav was among those 21 laws which were literally bulldozed by the government during the assembly’s sitting on June 10.

The other bills which were referred to the joint sitting are the Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Bill, 2021; the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2021; the National Vocational and Technical Training Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2021 and the Hyderabad Institute for Technical and Management Sciences Bill, 2021.

Ordinances laid

The government also laid the Federal Government Properties Management Authority Ordinance, 2021; Elections (Third Amendment) Ordinance, 2021; Public Properties (Removal of Encroachment) Ordinance, 2021; Regulation of Generation, Transmission and Distribution of Electric Power (Amendment) Ordinance, 2021 and Pakistan Food Security Flow and Information Ordinance, 2021 before the house.

Bills introduced

In the absence of the opposition, the government introduced 11 bills, including the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Bill, 2021 aimed at providing protection to a person during custody from torture perpetrated by government officials. The house also passed two bills related to the Higher Education Commission.

Parliamentary party meets

Earlier, Prime Minister Imran Khan presided over a meeting of the parliamentary group of the ruling alliance. Sources said the meeting was attended by over 170 lawmakers.

During the meeting, the sources said, the PM said the PTI would not make any compromise on I-voting for overseas Pakistanis. He criticised the ECP’s role and accused it of having become a tool in the hands of the opposition.

The prime minister apprised the lawmakers about the government’s plan to get Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin elected as senator from Punjab against Ishaq Dar’s seat, which has virtually remained vacant in the absence of the PML-N leader who has not taken oath because of his self-exile in the UK.

The government on Sept 1 had promulgated the Elections (Third Amendment) Ordinance 2021, making it binding upon the elected members to take oath within 40 days of the promulgation of the ordinance.

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2021

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